The Princess & the Frog: Controversies and Criticism

As many may be aware, Disney’s the Princess and the Frog opened in theaters on Friday. The animated flick is a throwback to Disney’s classic “princess” movies, but more remarkably, it is the first of such flicks to feature a notably black [African-American] princess, voiced by Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency).

Since Disney declared its plans for this movie in 2006, there has been controversy surrounding it. Originally, the script featured a young woman named Maddy who worked for a wealthy white woman as a chambermaid in New Orleans during the late 1800s, but the script was changed amidst harsh criticism by black Americans, who alleged, among other things, that Maddy was a ‘slave’ name, the character was subservient to her white boss and relied on a [white] man to rescue her. And then there was the original title–The Frog Princess, which many criticized for associating blacks with animals.

In response, Disney changed the title and the character’s name from Maddy to Tiana, which itself is still unacceptable to some who dismiss it as a ‘ghetto’ name. The storyline now has Tiana as an aspiring restaurateur in 1920s New Orleans who gets transformed into a frog when she kisses narcissistic Prince Naveen, a visiting foreign monarch. Despite the changes, chatter in the blogosphere will tell you that the movie is still a firestorm of controversy. This controversy fittingly proves my theory that dealing with blacks and black issues is a ‘delicate trick’–a damned if do, damned if you don’t kind of conundrum.

The biggest controversy about the movie centers on the ethnicity of Prince Naveen, a character Disney has intentionally made ethnically ambiguous. The character hails from the fictional country of Maldonia, which IMDB.com lists as a country in the Mediterranean, which encompasses parts of southern and eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. The character’s name ‘Naveen’ has been confirmed as East Indian or Middle Eastern, meaning “new”; though he is voiced by a Brazilian actor, he speaks with a French accent, further complicating his ethnicity. As a result of this ethnic ambiguity, many ‘brown’ peoples (Native Americans, Hispanics, East Indians, Middle Easterners, Creole French, et al) have claimed him as their own. Although, I’d like to say, considering his name and other details in his history, including his mother wearing a sari, I’d say that he’s most likely of East Indian or Middle Eastern ethnicity. Prince Naveen’s ethnicity is a fire rod of controversy from two angles. Many people believe it’s Disney’s way of compromising non-whites for the sake of the mighty dollar; that it to say, by making him ambiguous, they can ensure that many people won’t feel alienated by two lead black characters. While I agree with the this point, I accept that Disney is a corporation. I won’t criticize it for trying to ensure a profit.

However, controversy number two is more interesting. Blacks accuse Disney of belittling black men, by making Prince Naveen non-black, and furthermore, juxtaposing Prince Naveen, the hero, with the very dark Dr. Facilier, the evil voodoo doctor. Many black bloggers and sociologists have argued that Disney should’ve made the prince African American or black other, and that not doing so was a slap in the face of black men, who are only portrayed as criminals and sidekicks, but not heroes and romantic love interests.

I understand the argument for wanting a black prince, but I also think there are many creative reasons for sticking with Prince Naveen as he is. As I mentioned earlier in the article, the early struggles of the first script proves that making this film was a delicate task to undertake. There are many ways they could’ve offended blacks, who’ve been portrayed poorly since the inception of cinema and films. However, I am not convinced an African or African American prince would’ve worked for this feature.

Here’s why:
It is important to recognize that this is an American fairytale, and in many ways, the most American of all the fairytales. It takes place in New Orleans and not in a land faraway or Africa. Tiana is African American. America doesn’t have a monarchy, and therefore the prince had to be an outsider. I’m aware that being an outsider doesn’t exclude being black, so I’ll explain. Some bloggers and message board users have suggested that Prince Naveen should’ve been black African, similar to Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America. The problem with this is perception. Disney’s challenge was to find a prince whose royal lifestyle, wealth and splendor was on par with those royals in its other princess fairytales. Disney couldn’t make the prince visibly white, for socio-racial reasons.

While I understand it’s a fairytale/fantasy and Disney could’ve made up whatever they wanted, the critics of the movie have consistently analyzed it for its real life impact on black children, and if I am to follow this line of thought, it would be very wrong to mislead black children about the realities in Africa. In summary, Prince Naveen was a compromise, but not a bad one. For the purposes of the film, he works best.

To address some of the real life worries…

Some black commentators worry that a non-black prince will sow the seed of divide between black women and black men, and will damage the self-esteem of black males. I don’t want to dismiss their concerns, but it’s important to remember that the emphasis in Disney princess movies is the princess and not the prince. I don’t doubt black male children will watch this movie, but I am betting the bulk of those who will watch and cherish it will be female. Furthermore, the underlying fear of the commentary seem to be that black females will no longer desire the black male as a romantic partner, a fear that completely contradicts reality. Studies have shown again and again that black women and Asian males are the least likely to date outside of their race, while black males and Asian females are the most likely to do so.

I think some of the harsh criticisms, many of which came out months in advance of the flick’s theatrical release, are ridiculous. I will say in conclusion that the final film is the least offensive Disney could’ve made it without losing the Disney quality and touch. I’ll reiterate here: making this movie was a delicate trick. It was a damned if you do; damned if you don’t situation and I think it turned out decently enough, even once the famous expression “you can’t please everyone” is considered. In the future, if or when Disney attempts to make a second black princess movie, I hope it will be bolder. I hope to see a black prince or hero. But until then, just enjoy The Princess and the Frog.

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About TCDH

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10 Responses to The Princess & the Frog: Controversies and Criticism

  1. Mana says:

    The Princess and the Frog was a marvelous movie, but I too was a little disturbed by the fact that the prince wasn’t Black. It certainly wasn’t the “damned if you do/don’t” situation you’re making this out to be.

    Disney has barely ever cared about being “accurate”. Mulan didn’t represent historical China realistically and Pocahontas was a complete distortion of the real events, so the Disney people definitely are free to do whatever they want and they’re aware of that. If accurately portraying the leader of an African country was the real issue, they could have simply had Naveen come from an imaginary country like they did, but still make Naveen more obviously racially Black (dark skin, kinky hair, etc) and give him a Black African name.

    I don’t see how the portrayal of the Prince of Zamunda was “inaccurate”. “Inaccurate” in relation to what? Zamunda is a fictional country, anything they say about it must be accurate because they made it up. There is no real life reference to compare it with in order to define accuracy. Each Black African country has its own culture, so there is no one single way a Black African prince should be like in order to be “accurate”.

    The thing is that Disney didn’t only make up Naveen’s country, they also consciously chose to make Naveen look racially ambiguous, to give him a Spanish/French (both White countries) accent, to give him an Indian name and have his mother wear a sari when she appears at the end of the movie. His mother even had dark blue eyes, it seemed and his dad looked like he could have been Black and/or Indian.

    Sociologically, Disney clearly had much more too lose by making Naveen non-Black than making him Black. It seems obvious to me that less people would have complained if Naveen had been Black. There has never been a Black prince before and they knew why that’s an issue, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken so much pride in having a first Black princess.
    However if we judge purely in terms of making money, then making him ambiguous was indeed more profitable, like you said, and that seems to be the main reason for their choice. It’s sad how money is so powerful that it goes in the way of people doing the right thing… Disney’s choice is understandable, but it deserves the negative criticism it has received, too.

    • La Keesha Vega says:

      spain and france may both be white countries but they are certainly not the only countries where french and spanish are the native tongue. i am cuban and morocco and brown as a walnut and I am not an anomaly in my country. All of my brothers however favor the Naveen character and they say Black when asked as we are all now citizens and proud of it. i say this only because of that one comment you made which I found very narrow and incorrect. Ive been many many places where Spanish and French are the mother tongue and to label them “white countries” is both dismissive and insulting. Everything else you said was on point.

      • Mel says:

        I am not exactly sure of your criticism. I never said there weren’t non-white people who spoke Spanish. I said Spain/France are white countries. I never said there weren’t blacks who resembled Naveen. I said Naveen is racially ambiguous by intention of Disney.

    • Mel says:

      I’m black and I’m not american I speak spanish and portuguese

  2. Titus says:

    Hello, I am a young black male and I have to say I love the argument made in the above writings by you. I do agree completely with you but just have to point something out that bothered me and probably most people. When you finished your review you ended with the statement “I hope to see a black prince or hero. But until then, just enjoy “The Princess and the Frog.”‘ Yes I do hope to see a black princess but I wasn’t disappointed a different raced prince. But in the closing sentence I felt as if you were falling us to get over whatever we feel about the movie and the race of Naveen, and to simply “take whatcha got” I don’t feel that was a correct way or a good way of ending your argument. The reason most of us feel the way we do is because of comments like that! It’s different to us than other races because we’re seen so differently from other races (different hair, different skin) and most people would like their children to see that not only the lighter skin people can be princess or princes and that everyone is equal (even if we’re not) but they want to make a better world for their children and teach them to not just “take whatcha got” because you deserve more because you’re no different, you’re human just like the rest of them. Just wanted to point that out sorry if this is too long or too deep, but had to explain for you, thanks for your analysis on the movie though really did enjoy here/reading the different sides of the story background!
    Thanks, Titus Moten

  3. Mel says:

    I thought he was meant to represent a black mixed race brazilian
    lol americans honestly believe there is not black people outside USA?!
    The prince is not african american but he’s black for sure

  4. Eris M. says:

    My personal opinion is that having two different racial characters just has more inclusion than exclusion as that is another problem in America. I like the characters and ii feel as though the movie was very good. Personally… I wish Disney had some more of the hardips of being African American in American, especially hhe South but that’s just my love of teaching history. I also believe this was to make up for the incredibly racist movie Disney made called Song of the South.

  5. Peter says:

    “…And if I am to follow this line of thought, it would be very wrong to mislead black children about the realities in Africa.”??? The only line of thought that this writer is following is that it is ok to shortchange the African-American community with lies of Black subordination to the dominant European culture and racist undertones of White Supremacy. It’s disgusting how people accept this. Is this writer serious? “Misleading black children about the realities in Africa”??? Seriously??? I’m just losing my breath at the absurdity and irresponsibility of that statement!
    Conveniently the writer switches back and forth from fairytales to reality but this writer seems to be stuck in a fairytale reality of their own. If it’s a fairytale, let it be a fairytale giving the African-American community and children a hero of their own… And if it is to be reality-based then this writer is sadly mistaken to claim that there are no real life rich African Princes to base this story off. Further showing the writers ignorance of Africa is the writer’s use of the movie ‘Coming to America’ as their only example. As said in a previous post, Coming to America is also fictional. How are you even using it as an example of what not to do? It’s more like an excuse…

  6. Opti says:

    Naveen is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit language originated and is used in India. The word Naveen is from India and has absolutely nothing to do with the Middle East.
    There is no country called East India. Naveen as a name can be found all over India. Sanskrit spread all over the Indian Subcontinent with Hinduism as it was the language of scriptures (and official work) as most of it was always under Hindu kings and had majorly Hindu population before Islamic invaders and later Britishers arrived. So one may find the name Naveen even in regions/states of India where historically and culturally, languages apart from Sanskrit and Hindi (which today derives a lot from Sanskrit) are spoken.

    • Opti says:

      Oh and the Sari is also an ancient Indian dress.
      I haven’t seen the movies but happened to read about it and the name Naveen intrigued me. That brought me to your blog post. In pictures the character looks Brazilian to me though.

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